Survivors of a fire on HMCS Kootenay marked the 40th anniversary of the worst peacetime accident in Canadian naval history with a visit Friday to the gravesites of their shipmates in Plymouth, England.
Fire broke out in the Kootenay's engine room on Oct. 23, 1969, off the coast of England. The destroyer was heading home to Halifax after manoeuvres with NATO ships in the North Atlantic.
The inferno on the lower decks killed nine crew members and injured 53 others.
Kootenay's former commander, Neil Norton, 83, spoke only a few tearful words about his men during Friday's ceremony that was attended by about 50 survivors.
"They exceeded any standard that you wanted for training," he said. "And they had guts. That's all."
Brian Galletely, who worked in the engine room, said he stepped away to grab a coffee, which saved his life.
"The fellow that slept in the next bunk to me, he passed away," Galletely said. "And, you know, it's really hard at times to think about it."
The accident marked the last time servicemen who died overseas had to be buried abroad. Since then, families have been able to bring their deceased loved ones home.
Support services, including counselling for military families, have also improved since the fire, and there have been changes in training and firefighting.
The pilgrimage to Plymouth was an act of closure for many survivors who were unable take part in the funerals in 1969 because they were in hospital recovering from burns and smoke inhalation.
The survivors said they also wanted to thank the people of Plymouth for the hospitality and support they provided in 1969.